April 06, 2017      

CHICAGO — As e-commerce continues to grow as a portion of the economy, supply chains are increasingly depending on warehouse robotics to meet the demand, according to presenters at Automate 2017 here yesterday.

“Shoppers made 51% of their purchases online last year. The surge has pushed e-retailers to their limits,” said Lior Elazary, founder and CEO of inVia Robotics. “Consumers don’t realize that when they click ‘Add to cart,’ it requires a team of people to handle this.”

Simply adding humans to handle all of the additional work of order fulfillment, including packing and shipping, isn’t enough, he added.

There’s a shortage of labor, and many of these jobs are physical in nature, requiring a lot of lifting and quick, repetitive movements. So turnover for these jobs is high. Amazon.com Inc. is hiring 30,000 part-time workers in the coming year, reported The Wall Street Journal.

Business Takeaways:

  • Warehouse robotics will continue to grow because of the ongoing shift toward e-commerce, predicted speakers at Automate 2017 and industry analysts.
  • Worker shortages, increasing robot flexibility, and improvements in machine vision are prompting companies to adopt logistics automation.
  • Other enabling factors for warehouse robots include big data analytics, IoT, and the ability to integrate things such as barcode readers into existing inventory systems.

Warehouse robotics becomes the rule

“As a result, automation is the rule, not the exception for e-tailers that want to stay competitive,” Elazary said.

The warehouse robotics market will experience a compound annual growth rate of 11.8% between 2017 and 2022, reaching $4.44 billion, predicted research firm Markets and Markets.

Warehouse robotics in Germany

Warehouse robotics includes autonomous navigation in dynamic environments.

While fixed automation is configured upfront to fit a specific workflow and throughput, it doesn’t offer the scalabity or speed to handle the predicted growth of e-commerce.

Nor can e-tailers and omnichannel retailers with physical and e-commerce operations afford to build automated systems that can handle a one-month peak season, which is three to four times the average business of a typical month, Elazary said. And upgrades for automated systems are costly.

Online retailers are turning to warehouse robotics because they can be also track inventory, monitor security, transport goods, pack orders, and pick items.

Adapting and collaborating

Adaptive systems enable companies to shift operations in real time, as opposed to months of planning and labor intensive modification. Elazary said. Companies can scale up or down by changing the number of robots. In addition, robots show up to work every day — no sick days or vacation time.

The newer collaborative robots can can work alongside humans in the back room of a retail store, fulfillment center, or distribution center, he added.

“The integration of robots into workforce should incorporate the strengths of robots and people in order to achieve optimal workflows,” said Elazary.

Artificial intelligence and vision capabilities enable supply chain robots to navigate in dynamic environments and have helped create more adaptable robots at lower price points. Management systems can enable warehouse operators to modify processes and optimize robot usage, Elazary said.

Warehouse robotics continues to advance, enabling units to do more, noted Matt Wicks, vice president of product development and manufacturing systems at Intellegrated.

While bin picking, palletizing, and depalletizing systems have been around for a while, “each picking” — robots able to identify and pick specific items — is still in its early development stages, he said.

Big data and IoT spread behind the scenes

The incorporation of big data, data analytics, and the Internet of Things (IoT) will also benefit logistics automation, said Bradley Weber, manufacturing industry presales engineering manager at Datalogic SpA.

IoT is already making its presence felt in the front of the store. Some retailers have incorporated beacon sensors into mannequins that can describe what they are wearing when a consumer comes within a designated proximity.

By integrating barcode reading capability into robots in the warehouse, retailers can track, trace, and control shipments — an essential attribute of a successful e-commerce operation, Weber added.

“Customers want information about their shipments,” he said. “Technology helps capture the data and communicate the information.”

Barcodes are an inexpensive and easy way to capture information about items that can be communicated to consumers as well as others in the supply chain, Weber said. As demands for more data increase, there will be a need to add more data along with the barcode, he said.

More on Warehouse Robotics:

Machines can see more clearly now

Machine vision will continue to have a larger role, Weber added. More perceptive warehouse robotics will be able to do more sorting, storing, and other highly repetitive tasks that can lead to worker injuries.

Today, machine vision allows for package and item identification even if the picture isn’t perfect, he said. The clearer the picture, the more accurate the identification, but there’s no need to process every pixel, Weber pointed out. The more pixels processed, the longer it takes, he explained.

“You want to keep processing time to a minimum so that the conveyor belt can keep moving at high speeds,” Weber said. “You need to have efficient decision-making.”

He added that better lighting allows for better identification, but this is another area where companies need to justify the expenditure. Weber and other Automate presenters stressed that companies shouldn’t spend on unneeded robotic capabilities.

Weber predicted that machine vision will evolve to the point where units will accurately see differences in packages to properly categorize them and ensure package integrity.

All of the presenters said they expect continued e-commerce demand to dictate further uses of retail and warehouse robotics.